Long-time Sask. artist says now-banned eyeball modification shouldn't be labelled a 'tattoo'

A veteran tattoo artist in Saskatoon says the term "eyeball tattoo" is actually incorrect, as the procedure has nothing to do with tattooing or the art form.

To call the eye modification procedure a 'tattoo' may hurt industry, art form, says tattoo artist

Jody Spychej, the owner of Ink Addiction Tattoos, works on a client as he speaks about the mislabelling of scleral tattoos. He says the procedure is not actually a tattoo, as it does not involve a tattoo gun and actually uses a hypodermic needle. (Matt Garrand/CBC )

Jody Spychej slowly and intently works the needle of a tattoo gun across his client's leg.

He takes care with every line he places, as the art form is exact and permanent. There's no room for mistakes.

Spychej himself is covered in tattoos and you can tell by the way he works he's a master of his craft.

The owner of Ink Addiction Tattoos in Saskatoon, Spychej has been working as a tattoo artist for more than two decades and since 2007, he's been running a team of artists out of the Circle Drive shop.

Speaking as he continues his work, he said he wants to set the record straight on what are commonly called scleral, or eye tattoos — which were recently banned in Saskatchewan.

He says to label the procedure as a "tattoo" is incorrect and hurts the reputation of the industry and the craft.

"Twenty-five-years ago, [getting a tattoo] was looked upon as being something that you did if you were trying to stand out, or be a little more on the outlaw side," he said.

"We've worked really hard in the last 20 years to change that perspective. We want people to realize it's an art form." 

Spychej said he feels when misinformation spreads about the procedure — which involves injecting dye or inserting an object to change the colour of the white of the eye — it diminishes the work reputable artists have done to establish the art's reputation. 

So-called scleral tattooing "isn't what tattoo artists do today," he said. "This isn't common whatsoever." 

Spychej explained the procedure isn't really a tattoo because it's done with a hollow, hypodermic needle, as opposed to a tattoo gun. 

"I'd be scared that people would look at this and be like, 'Oh, thank God. We finally stopped them from tattooing people's eyeballs,' because it was a non-issue." 

Catt Gallinger, who had a botched ink injection in her eyeball, shows the amount of swelling in her eye at her home in Ottawa in a September 2017 file photo. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Spychej said while he feels the procedure has been mislabelled as a tattoo, he's pleased with the government's decision to ban the practice, as it's not a procedure he would ever endorse or perform. He said the last thing tattoo artists want to do is cause their clients harm. 

The Ministry of Health noted in a statement that the ban on the procedure was put in place to address concerns raised by the Saskatchewan Optometrists Association. 

The statement noted the Government of Saskatchewan consulted with tattoo facility operators and other stakeholders before moving on the ban. 

The statement explained this type of procedure is "very risky" and can result in consequences ranging from damaged vision to the loss of an eye. 

A tattoo by Jody Spychej can be seen on the leg of a client at Ink Addiction Tattoos in Saskatoon on Feb. 12, 2020. (Matt Garand/CBC)

"Saskatchewan made the decision to ban scleral tattooing and eye jewelry because obtaining this type of body modification is very risky and can result in serious complications including significant inflammation, infection, damage to vision, blindness, and eye loss," the province's statement said.

"While the Ministry of Health is not aware of this type of practice occurring in Saskatchewan, the potential adverse outcome to these procedures is extremely severe [and] a ban was still considered appropriate."

However, not everyone feels the government's ban is for the best. 

Taundra Richardson, 22, who has several tattoos and piercings, said she likes the look the procedure creates, and called the ban "a little silly." 

"It's your body. Why can't you do whatever you want?" she said.

Richardson feels as long as body modifications are done safely and are not derogatory, the government shouldn't interfere.

Twenty-two-year-old Taundra Richardson says while she would never get an eye tattoo, she feels the government shouldn't be telling people what they can and cannot do with their bodies. (Matt Garand/CBC )

"I like my eyes the way they are, so I personally wouldn't" undergo the eye modification, she said. "But if you want to do it, absolutely. Go for it."

In a press release, the Saskatchewan Optometrists Association commended the provincial government on the ban, saying eye doctors are seeing an increase in the number of patients with "complications due to eyeball tattooing and eye jewlery."

"This new legislation is a proactive decision to protect the public's vision and prevent unnecessary cases of injury and blindness," said Dr. Nathan Knezacek, the association's president.


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